Opinion and Analysis: Media Watch
The New Yorker Corrects Two Errors on Venezuela, Refuses a Third
Thanks to readers’ responses to The New Yorker following my last post, “On Venezuela, The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson Fails at Arithmetic,” the magazine has amended two errors in two separate articles.
The first correction involves an online piece that Anderson wrote on the eve of Venezuela’s elections in October of last year. As was pointed out almost immediately after Anderson’s entry was published, he had incorrectly claimed that “Venezuela leads Latin America in homicides” in his “The End of Chavez?” (the headline was changed to “Chavez the Survivor” after the late Venezuelan president handily won his reelection).
Actually, it is Honduras that leads Latin America—and indeed the entire world—in per capita homicides: 92 per 100,000 people are killed annually there, while Venezuela’s figure stands at 45.1, according to the most recently available United Nations data. And unlike the Venezuelan government, the Honduran government contributes to this body count by regularly murdering its own civilians through its military and police, both of which receive tens of millions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers. (The New Yorkerhasn’t published a single article referring to Honduras’s current post-coup regime, headed by Porfirio Lobo, who came to power in January of 2010.)
Reacting to readers’ complaints, the magazine’s editors issued an addendum to Anderson’s October 7 piece, which reads:
*An earlier version of this post said that Venezuela led Latin America in homicides; globally, it was in fourth place, but third in Latin America (behind Honduras and El Salvador), according to U.N. statistics on intentional homicides for 2010-11.
Another Anderson article—“Slumlord: What has Hugo Chávez wrought in Venezuela?”—also misled the print magazine’s readers by giving the impression that Chávez’s presidential tenure was predicated on a coup d’etat rather than his victories in over a dozen internationally vetted elections. The New Yorker released a correctionfor the inaccuracy in its April 1 issue, two months after the original piece had been published:
In “Slumlord,” by Jon Lee Anderson (January 28th), Hugo Chávez is described as having been concerned with “preventing a coup like the one that put him in office.” In fact, Chávez’s coup attempt, in 1992, failed; he was elected to office in 1998.
For Jon Lee Anderson’s most recent factual error, unfortunately, The New Yorker has thus far refused to issue a clarification or retraction. One month ago—the day Chávez died—Anderson wrote a third piece, for NewYorker.com, claiming:
What [Chávez] has left is a country that, in some ways, will never be the same, and which, in other ways, is the same Venezuela as ever: one of the world’s most oil-rich but socially unequal countries. . .
As I pointed out in “Anderson Fails at Arithmetic,” this allegation misleads the reader in two ways. Inequality has been reduced enormously under Chávez, using its standard measure, the Gini coefficient. So one can hardly say that in this aspect, Venezuela remains the “same as ever.” Making Anderson’s contention even worse is the fact that Venezuela is the most equal country in Latin America, according to the United Nations. Anderson’s readers come away with exactly the opposite impression.
To The New Yorker’s credit, a senior editor sent me an email regarding my article’s criticisms, and flatly conceded the first two misstatements in Anderson’s pieces. However, the note offered a strained defense of Anderson’s position on inequality, arguing that Anderson’s point was valid, given that his claim supposedly combined Venezuela’s conditions of being both “oil-rich” and “socially unequal” as one assertion.
I pointed out in my response that any reasonable reading of the statement would portray Venezuela as both one of the world’s most oil-rich and one of the world’s most socially unequal countries. And the fact of the matter is that the CIA’s World Factbook ranks the country 68th out of 136 countries with available data on income inequality—that is to say, Venezuela is exactly in the middle, and impossible to construe as among the most unequal.
I also explained that when Anderson was confronted with this evidence on Twitter, the magazine’s principal correspondent on Venezuela expressed extreme skepticism toward publicly available, constantly used, and highly scrutinized data; he instead cited his own “reporting” and “impressions” as the authority for his assertions. Given Anderson’s defiant admission not to even pretend to care about empirical data—after his magazine had already retracted two of his articles’ factual claims—it was incumbent on editors and fact-checkers to uphold The New Yorker’s reputation as a trustworthy and evidence-based journal by addressing the issue immediately.
Lastly, I argued that the awkward formulation of combining “oil-rich” and “socially unequal”—a reading I reject—exposes Anderson’s contention as even further at odds with reality. Included in my email was the following list showing the top 10 most “oil-rich” countries ranked in order of their total crude oil production,according to the International Energy Agency. Each country’s corresponding Gini coefficient from the CIA World Factbook appears in parentheses—the higher the Gini coefficient, the greater the country’s inequality:
1. Saudi Arabia (unavailable)
2. Russia (0.42)
3. United States (0.45)
4. Iran (0.445)
5. China (0.48)
6. Canada (0.32)
7. United Arab Emirates (unavailable)
8. Venezuela (0.39)
9. Mexico (0.517)
10. Nigeria (0.437)
When provided with these arguments and data, The New Yorker’s senior editor fell silent in the face of repeated follow-ups. I received a reply only once: a rejection of my request to publicly post our correspondence. While issuing a correction to Anderson’s third Venezuela article over the past year would have been embarrassing, the continued silence and inaction of the elite intellectual journal is perhaps a greater indictment. Anderson’s error remains unchanged on the liberal magazine’s website, while its senior editor has refused to address the matter in private correspondence or offer a public rationale for leaving Anderson’s claim intact.
When asked to comment on this issue, Branko Milanovic—a lead economist at the World Bank and arguably the world’s foremost expert on global inequality—interpreted Anderson’s quote the standard way: “The article says that Venezuela is one of most ‘socially unequal’ countries,” he wrote by email. But The New Yorker’s “extremely vague formulation,” he added, obscured an important reality: “What we know…is that Venezuela is among two or three most equal Latin American countries measured by income inequality.” According to his own research of inequality throughout the world, Venezuela is likely to be ranked somewhere “around the middle, or perhaps slightly above (these things do change from year to year).”
Prominent macroeconomist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research found The New Yorker’s factual contention and subsequent unresponsiveness astonishing: “This is pretty outrageous,” he wrote by email. “Do they have any data to support their assertion, or is the argument that because they don’t like Chávez they can say anything they want about him?”
Readers can pose such questions to The New Yorker by contacting its editors atwww.newyorker.com/contact/contactus, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at@tnynewsdesk. Such media activism plays a crucial role in engendering more careful portrayals of countries like Venezuela, which has long been the target of cartoonishly hostile, slanted, and outright false media coverage. Previous demands for accuracy and accountability have already prompted two admissions of error by The New Yorker, and can lead to a third, in spite of the magazine’s obstinacy. More importantly, the magazine now faces a real political cost to publishing sloppy reporting, as well as a powerful deterrent to running reckless news and commentary during a politically significant transitional moment for Venezuela.
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